My aunt, an avid hiker in her day, says on a hike you see so much beauty that it could not possibly be for free, so you have to pay for it in sweat. Believe me, you’ll sweat on the Fish River Canyon hike in southern Namibia, but the returns are worth every drop.
The canyon is breathtaking. When we were finally standing at the signpost announcing the start of the Fish River hiking trail as it stretches out as far as the eye can see: flat tops, gentle rolling slopes and the glint of the river here and there, I thought to myself: This is it!
We had been planning this hike for more than a year and Farrell, my partner, and I had both missed out on previous opportunities to go due to the death of a very dear loved one. But this was real and it was time to go, with our 11 friends in tow.
Our friendly driver insisted on taking pictures with us before sending us on our way to the +/-67km hike along 90km of the Fish River. (If you miss the shortcuts you will do all 90km, and trust me, that is too much!) Farrell did some final adjustments to my backpack before he bounced down the insanely steep path that leads you to the canyon floor with James, our friend. I took it slower, settling in and taking time to take in the environment. This was a first for me, as most of my trekking thus far in my life has been up, up, up with some down at the end if you’re lucky.
There were a few missteps and tumbles and blood but we got to the bottom eventually and soon were next to the river – our constant companion for the next five days.
In we went to test the waters. What a treat! It is very tempting to linger in the soothing water, but the descent takes quite some time so best to push on to ensure you can cover enough ground and find a camping spot before dark.
Some bouldering followed the comfortable lunch stop, and I finally understood why so many people gave the boulders as the reason why they would never do it again. You need to be quite light on your feet and your backpack needs to be really snug on your back, otherwise, you are going to spend a lot of time on your behind (I silently thanked Farrell for that last tightening of straps before we set off).
Day one is hard, no doubt, and we reached a soft beach on the river bank with about half an hour to spare before sunset. A quick river wash, a shot of whiskey and spirits were sufficiently restored to tackle supper.
Night one: Fancy vegetarian hot dogs with cream cheese, tomato sauce and mustard, custard for dessert and then bed – at 19:45.
Life is filled with many pleasures, but sleeping under the stars is most definitely in my top ten. The desert is a dark and quiet place and I have never seen so many stars or so much of the milky way’s fuzzy clouds. The plan was to look out for shooting stars, but I fell asleep too fast for that to happen.
Many rivers to cross
Day two, the only morning that we bothered making oats for breakfast. The rest of the days we had peanut butter protein bars with our coffee. It might be because it was warmer than expected and because our lunches and suppers were rather elaborate, but we had way too many snacks and even just mixing oats with boiling water and washing the bowl took up too much time.
We were sluggish packing up camp and we hit the road a bit too late. Soon we reached our first river crossing: a tricky one with a long jump involved. Only one out of 13 hit the water so we started out with good odds and soon we had to cross again and again. And again. Crocs came in handy from this point, but trail runners would have been even better because they have good grip and dry quick. Sadly, they were left in the bakkie at Ai-Ais...
And so the day went. River crossings are time-consuming, especially with 13 people – some of whom were very nervous – so the day became long again. The group became quiet.
I had the hot spring at Palm Springs, where we were aiming to sleep, on my mind but I did notice heaps of horse dung here and there on the way. There is always a chance of spotting the elusive wild horses of the Fish River Canyon, but I know people who have done this hike many times and seen nothing more than a bit of poo.
But suddenly, there they were.
But there was little time to linger as there was much more ground to cover to Palm Springs.
Soon after spotting the horses we passed the escape route. Trust me: you do not want to use it. It looked absolutely brutal and when you get to the top, it is still a long slog back to Hobas!
You smell Palm Springs before you see it. Rotten eggs from the sulphur bubbling up from the earth. We were all too tired to even attempt a soak, smell or no smell, and instead cooked a winner meal: pasta with freeze-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach and peppers slow cooked in red wine and covered in pecorino. Worth the carry!
And then we got clever
On morning three we were up before the sun. We packed in a flash and were on our way in the golden morning light. The landscape keeps changing over the last three days. Lots of boulder hopping involved, many river crossings and breathtaking beauty as the canyon spreads out and narrows, spreads out and narrows.
Strolling through the canyon just after dawn. (Hanlie Gouws, News24)
We had a clear mission for the rest of our journey: cover the distance, find a place where you can have a proper sit down for lunch, preferably where you can swim too, and make it to camp before dark.
And we did it! At 16:30, the time we had agreed upon to set up camp, we arrived at a beautiful site, as if pre-arranged and went straight for the river with our 3-litre papsak which we shared with Gareth and Annushka, who were happy to help lighten our load.
Our green curry supper went down well and Farrell, Jaco, and Pieter made a cozy campfire where Nataliya, Richard and I enjoyed our cocktails of rehydration salts and Annelie and Dillon came over with some Amarula to share. Yes! This is what hiking is all about!
Day four was a carbon copy of three. We got this thing down! Our river crossings worked like a well-oiled machine as confidence grew. We moved at a speed that kept the group together and even left room for a lunch-time nap under a thorn tree by the river. The terrain became so much easier to negotiate that I could settle into a rhythm and enjoy the scenery.
We had no trouble locating the vitally important shortcuts. If you miss these, you don’t only make your hike a lot longer, you will also miss out on some really spectacular scenery. I’ve never been there, but I am pretty sure the top of the shortcut on day four looks like the Arches National Park in Utah with its towering red fingers.
The path lead us to a most beautiful camping spot on a wide, flat beach where we set up a proper camp and had a proper river bath. We were lucky that the river was no higher and no lower than it was. Higher would have made river crossings extremely trying, and lower would mean carrying more water with you at all times.
Supper was glass noodles with pickled veg and banoffee concoction made from our combined leftover snacks and some of Annami’s peanut butter.
And then the bugs attacked. This was the only time I missed having a tent as shelter. Put your headlamp on and you are instantly covered. But, again, a small price to pay for sleeping under the stars.
Ring the bells!
Day 5 was hard. I wanted more and the thought that this would be our last day weighed heavily on me. I walked slower and dragged my heels but to no avail. Nine river crossings and about 17km in we came across a sign: Beer 1km with an arrow pointing towards Ai-Ais. That kilometre felt like forever and I followed the small “CROCS” print that Farrell’s shoes left in the soft sand (he had ditched his boots many kilometres before) and allowed my brain to relax for just that little while longer. Just one foot in front of the other.
As you arrive at Ai-Ais, the staff ring a bell to announce your arrival. You are done. You’ve made it, and you are now part of the in-crowd who can forever refer to the Fish River hike as “The Fish”.
The hike itself was hard, but yet far easier that some others made it out to be. It is also far prettier and much more relaxing than I'd imagined.
Now I get why people do this hike 10 times.
(And yes, we have already paid the deposit for next year!)
- The trail is only open from May 1 to September 15 and it is very popular, so you have to book at least a year in advance to get a spot. People are already booking for 2021 so hurry if you want to go.
- Do not forget your medical form at home. You will not be allowed on the hike without it!
- All roads leading to the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Park are good and it is a very pleasant drive. Take your time.
- South Africans do not need visas for Namibia, you just get your passport stamped at the border post. Your car needs a ZA sticker and you need the original registration papers.
- The hike starts 10km from Hobas and ends at Ai-Ais. You can book your first night at either place as transport to the start can be arranged at extra cost from both. Camping and cabins are available.
Get more information at Namibia Wildlife Resorts
Six essentials for your first Fish:
1. You need a proper map, and somebody who actually knows how to use it! If you can't find one at home you can buy one at Hobas, but you will need time to study it before you set off It is essential to have an idea where to cross the river and where to find the short cuts.
2. Take a decent ground sheet. We woke up covered in sand on morning one and then had to cut up our survival bag to use as a groundsheet for the rest of the trip.
3. Pack proper food for lunch and supper. You are going to need the calories and you will feel like treating yourself at the end of the day. Rather take less clothes and more food. It is possible to eat only instant noodles, but come on! Do you really want to?
4. We are coffee snobs and wasted so much time on making proper coffee in the morning when an instant coffee would have hit the spot. Some things one can compromise on sometimes! Do take enough rehydration powder and/or Game. You definitely need to replace electrolytes often. And don't forget the wine!
5. You need shoes with decent grip for river crossings, unless you are able to rock hop with a full pack on your back. Crocs work well, and if you have strong enough ankles, you can pretty much walk in them on most days. Trail running shoes that dry quick are ideal though and save a lot of time as you don't need to change shoes at every crossing.
6. Pack your backpack at home, feel it and then leave about a third of the stuff home. You really need the bare minimum and you can wash clothes on the way if you really have to. Adjust your straps and change the settings until the pack sit snugly on your back and does not wiggle as you walk.